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Making justice accessible for child survivors of sexual violence

Tackling the culture of impunity that exists for sexual violence is one of the UK government’s key objectives of the Prevention of Sexual Violence Initiative being championed by William Hague and is due to be discussed at the G8 foreign ministers’ meeting today.

This week, Save the Children published a report – Unspeakable Crimes Against Children – highlighting that children, especially girls, make up the majority of survivors of these horrific crimes in many conflicts, with catastrophic consequences on their future lives, health and livelihoods.

Please sign Save the Children’s petition calling on the UK government to increase humanitarian funding for child protection in emergencies: savethechildren.org.uk/unspeakable

Low reporting and prosecution rates

Despite the fact that rape and sexual violence in conflict are clearly outlawed in international and most national laws, these horrific crimes are rarely prosecuted.

Of 14,200 reports of rape registered in South Kivu, Democratic Republic of Congo, between 2005 and 2007, only 2% of perpetrators were brought to justice.

The reasons for this are complex. Fear of reprisals, shame and rejection mean that survivors are reluctant to report crimes. Even when crimes are reported, survivors face a multitude of barriers in securing prosecutions due to entrenched discrimination and poorly functioning criminal justice systems.

For child survivors of sexual violence, reporting crimes and accessing justice can be particularly challenging and traumatic given their increased vulnerability and the lack of age-appropriate justice systems and support services.

Child-friendly justice system

Effective gender- and age-sensitive protection, support and assistance are needed at every stage of the process – from the documenting of cases by medical officers to the first meeting with police officers to having the verdict and consequences clearly explained to the child at the end of the case.

At a minimum, police, prosecutors and judges need to be trained to treat children with dignity and compassion, to protect them from further psychological harm and trauma, and to act in their best interests at all times.

A case worker or protection officer should be assigned to each child survivor whose case is being investigated, and be present at all times.

Interviews with child survivors or witnesses should be done by trained professionals in a child-friendly environment and be as short and few as possible.

Coming face to face with the alleged perpetrator during court proceedings can be highly traumatising. Where possible, child survivors should have the opportunity to give evidence in a separate room (for example using video footage rather than live testimony).

Positive examples

A new child-friendly court in Swaziland allows the child to follow proceedings through headphones in a separate child-friendly room, and to testify in private with a trained intermediary present to support and assist them in following the proceedings and understanding the questions posed to them.

In South Africa, the law gives the court discretion to allow any child under 18 to testify through an intermediary where the court believes the child would suffer undue mental stress or suffering by testifying themselves.

In some countries, including Somalia and South Africa, NGOs have developed ‘one-stop shops’ where survivors can receive medical, legal and psychosocial support.

More needs to be done

Good practice examples, such as these, show that where child-friendly procedures are in place – accompanied by effective protection and adequate medical and psychological support throughout – justice can be achieved for children.

Nevertheless, such initiatives are rare.

The government’s initiative to tackle impunity for sexual violence is extremely welcome, but to reach the extensive number of child survivors, efforts to strengthen national justice systems to secure accountability must include making them accessible, safe and appropriate for children.

Add your voice

Please sign the petition calling on the government to increase humanitarian funding for child protection in emergencies: savethechildren.org.uk/unspeakable

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